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NEW ORLEANS – Winning one of the greatest shootouts in 49ers history could pay crucial dividends in their upcoming playoff return.
Sunday’s 48-46, instant-classic victory over the New Orleans Saints bolstered the 49ers’ chances of securing the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed, so long as they win out their remaining three games.
Robbie Gould’s 30-yard field goal as time expired provided the final points in an exhaustive display of big-time plays.
The 49ers (11-2) now return from their 10-day road trip to host the Los Angeles Rams and Atlanta Falcons before a titanic, regular-season finale at the Seattle Seahawks.
Jimmy Garoppolo’s precision passing (349 yards, four touchdowns) and Kyle Shanahan’s astute play calling were the lead characters in the 49ers’ greatness, and then came George Kittle rumbling down the left sideline to set up the 49ers’ winning points. Kittle produced a 39-yard reception to the Saints 28-yard line, and while fighting off three Saints defenders, he drew a 15-yard facemask penalty on Marcus Williams.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) December 8, 2019
Drew Brees’ fifth touchdown pass culminated on a 76-yard drive to overtake the 49ers with 53 seconds remaining.
The Saints (10-3) scored touchdowns on their first four possessions Sunday, and the 49ers answered with dramatic, big plays. The 49ers kept scoring touchdowns. The Saints slowed down, at least until Brees’ fourth touchdown pass pulled them within 2 points with 6 minutes to go.
The back-and-forth theatrics were reminiscent of the January 2012 playoff finish between the teams at Candlestick Park, where each scored two touchdowns and a field goal in the fourth quarter of the 49ers’ 36-32 win.
Four touchdowns apiece by halftime had the 49ers barely ahead 28-27. The second half opened with points off turnovers – the Saints converting a Garoppolo interception into a field goal, and the 49ers turning DeForest Buckner’s fumble recovery into a George Kittle touchdown.
Here is a closer look at the highs and lows of this epic game:
QB Jimmy Garoppolo: This was the best outing of his career, considering the stats, the stakes and the ability to answer Drew Brees’ excellence. Four touchdown passes — one in each quarter — were phenomenal, as was a breathless, third-and-2 conversion run with 4 1/2 minutes to go. He completed 26-of-35 for 349 yards and one interception.
Early touchdown passes to Kendrick Bourne and Emmanuel Sanders were perfect responses to Saints’ TDs. A career-long, 75-yard touchdown strike to Sanders was urgently needed after the Saints went ahead 20-7. Garoppolo opened with arguably his best drive of his career, at least opening drive. With the 49ers in a 7-0 hole, he diced up the Saints defense by completing 4-of-5 passes for 81 yards and throwing a 6-yard, third-and-goal scoring strike to Bourne.
WR Emmanuel Sanders: He kept swing the momentum back to the 49ers with big plays — catching and passing. Sanders took a Garoppolo handoff and then heaved a 35-yard touchdown pass to Raheem Mostert 5:59 before halftime. Earlier in the quarter, Sanders caught a 75-yard touchdown pass. As Marcus Williams stumbled in coverage, Sanders made the catch, fell on his back at the 20, then got up and beat Williams and Vonn Bell to the goal line. Sanders also produced 19- and 31-yard receptions to spark the opening touchdown drive.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) December 8, 2019
Coach Kyle Shanahan: He unleashed an array of phenomenal calls, such as the Garoppolo bomb to Sanders, the Sanders-to-Mostert touchdown and the Kyle Juszczyk pitch to Mostert, who scored a go-ahead touchdown on the next play. A 31-yard run by Deebo Samuel (with an assist to a George Kittle block) helped finish off this masterpiece.
When he happened to dine Friday night at the same restaurant as Saints coach Sean Payton, did they draw up plays together on napkins for this epic shootout?
DE Nick Bosa: His third-down stop on Taysum Hill for a 6-yard loss (after being held) was spectacular and forced the first Saints’ punt (after four touchdown drives). Bosa showed power again in the third quarter by fighting through a double-team block and hitting Brees for an incompletion. Bosa showed his athleticism by breaking up a third-down pass.
RB Raheem Mostert: A 35-yard touchdown reception and a 10-yard touchdown run are making quite the encore from last Sunday’s career-best 146-yard rushing effort. He set up the 10-yard touchdown with an 18-yard run off the Juszczyk pitch.
WR Kendrick Bourne: He scored his team-leading fourth touchdown to cap the opening drive, and he delivered a third-down conversion catch in the fourth quarter. That’s great production out of the unquestioned No. 3 receiver; Dante Pettis and Marquise Goodwin were inactivated before the game.
TE George Kittle: He put the 49ers ahead early in the third quarter with a 5-yard touchdown catch, diving to the left pylon. His earlier clutch play was a 20-yard reception on third-and-10 was clutch 2 1/2 minutes before halftime.
CB Ahkello Witherspoon: He dropped a potential game-sealing interception with 1 minute to go, but he had other solid plays. His third-down pass breakup forced the Saints to settle for a 55-yard field goal, following their interception of Garoppolo to open the second half. Great sideline coverage prevented a third-down touchdown catch by Michael Thomas, who should have been called for offensive pass interference.
Defense: Missed tackles, injuries and four touchdowns on the first four series have the 49ers defense reeling. After completing 15 of his first 18 passes for 179 yards and three touchdowns, Drew Brees scored on a fourth-and-1 dive over center for the 27-14 lead. Not helping matters was Dee Ford aggravating a hamstring injury and didn’t return after the first quarter.
SS Marcell Harris: His missed tackle put the 49ers in a 7-0 hole as tight end Jared Cook scored on a third-and-10, 38-yard touchdown catch on the opening drive. He also whiffed on Latavius Murray’s run to the 3-yard line to end the first quarter, and a holding penalty forced the 49ers to re-punt from their red zone.
Losing Richburg: Center Weston Richburg had to be carted off with injuries to his right knee and ankle barely 5 minutes into the second half. Richburg has had an exceptional season, and it may have ended when Shy Tuttle pushed him back to stop a third-and-1 run. Ben Garland replaced him.
Officiating: Jared Cook’s second touchdown catch was not a catch. That ball came loos after Witherspoon hit him and Cook went to the ground. The Saints left guard committed a false start on the play and that wasn’t called, either. Another missed call: pass interference on Michael Thomas. But referee John Hussey did quell the crowd by explaining pass interference couldn’t be called on a fake-punt throw because the Saints were in a punt formation.
Special teams: The coverage units gave up a 51-yard kickoff return and 25-yard punt return in the first half. Tarvarius Moore came through with a solid tackle on the 49ers’ final kickoff.
False starts: Right tackle Mike McGlinchey and left tackle Joe Staley drew false-start penalties in the first quarter. That’s not surprising with the Superdome’s noise. It’s also not acceptable.
LB Azeez Al-Shaair: His apparent zone coverage defense left Cook too much room to make that second touchdown “catch.”